President’s Post: That week when one journalist and one non-journalist broke my heart…

(Or…why accountability really is what it’s all about)

BY Andrea Frantz, Ph.D.
SCJ President

I’m not going to lie. This week was pretty heartbreaking.

Was it because Walking Dead fans had to relive the deaths of Tyreese and Beth? Nope. As long as Michonne lives, that’s all that really matters. Was it because Kanye West didn’t actually speak into the microphone when he (again) stormed the stage following a Beyoncé loss? Decidedly not. I could go many years without more words of wisdom from Kanye and be just fine, thanks. Was it because friends in New England were again looking at being buried in more of winter’s fury? Well, admittedly, I’m feeling a lot of sympathy there, but no. I’m an Iowan. Weather is a constant, but it never breaks us. Am I heartbroken over more naysayers on childhood immunizations? Oh, I’ve got a lot of frustration and anger, but no heartbreak.

No, my heartbreak comes from the loss of two influential voices in journalism. One of them calls himself a journalist but may have temporarily or occasionally forgotten the journalists’ code: SPJ’s edict to ‘Seek the Truth and Report It.” The other would never call himself a journalist, but did more to raise awareness of political and social issues as a satirist than most journalists.

My heart cracked initially when NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended because he ‘misremembered’ an experience he hearkened to several times over the past dozen years. He apparently was not in a Chinook helicopter that was shot down in Iraq, though he has claimed several times that he was. And in the wake of that revelation, new questions have arisen about the veracity of other reports, specifically during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

But my heart officially shattered when Jon Stewart, perhaps this generation’s greatest political and social satirist, announced his departure from The Daily Show. The Comedy Central anchor show is—for better or worse—the means by which so many of my students actually learn about what’s going on in the world.

First, let me address the Williams loss. Network anchors are journalists. Journalists are bound by the SPJ Code of Ethics. They need to know it, practice it, and call out those who violate its tenets. Those news outlets that have questioned and pursued the truth of this case are right to do so. NBC had no choice but to suspend Williams if there is even a small question of his credibility.

Because, in the end, it is credibility that’s at the heart of journalism. The nightly news anchor has long been seen as the face of the network. It’s Peter Jennings’s voice and face I will always associate with some of the most important stories of my adult life: the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bosnian war. I lived those experiences with Peter Jennings in my living room. And I am no different from millions of Americans. People come to associate lived and shared social experience with the person or people who deliver the news of that experience.

Unrealistic as it may be, we tend to hold those media leaders to a higher standard than everyone else, because they are a constant and because we feel we know them. Williams, as not only anchor but also Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, represented the network and the field at its highest level. I’m no psychologist; thus, I won’t try to address the faulty memory claim. It may well be true that he’s misremembered. The brain can be a funny thing. But when journalists become the news, and when memes and hashtags poking fun at journalistic integrity flood social media, the field is irreparably damaged.

So, heart cracked.

And then it shattered when coming on the heels of the Williams disappointment, Jon Stewart announced his departure at the end of the year from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Why am I including this comedian, who has long maintained “I don’t want to be a journalist; I am not a journalist” in with my lament for the field of journalism this week?

Again, it comes back to accountability. While Jon Stewart and his team at The Daily Show may not be journalists, per se, what they do for the field on a regular—indeed unrelenting—basis is hold the field of journalism (and yes, politicians, educators, and…OK, people in general) accountable for their public statements and actions. All. The. Time. And this is precisely what we should all be doing in the field every day. But we don’t. So we need the Jon Stewarts and Stephen Colberts out there to challenge us to rethink the very nature of truth, what we believe, and why we believe it.

Americans love entertainment and gravitate to it over straight information consistently. Why read about the complicated political machinations of Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels when we can watch Entertainment Tonight and hear Seth Myers nominate Russian President Vladimir Putin to the ALS ice bucket challenge? We just have to think less on the latter story, and in this information age in which we are bombarded by so much information, sometimes folks need to take it with a spoonful of sugar. Or so my students frequently tell me.

So while Jon Stewart’s riffs on news and news reporting are never delivered with even a modicum of sugar, there’s something to be said for getting people to pay attention to issues even while they’re laughing. Stewart’s dedication to political and social satire is a journalistic service, something that goes beyond entertainment. He has challenged the field of journalism to be accountable, and when it’s not, he’s called offenders out.

If the Brian Williamses of journalism are inevitable, we need the Jon Stewarts to hold up the mirror and answer the question, ‘Who’s the least ethical of all?’ Satire, when it’s done as well as it has been by The Daily Show, is the counter force when the reality of our human limits gets too weighty.

Are they both losses? Absolutely. When we lose smart voices in media it’s always a loss. But it’s Stewart’s voice I’m going to miss most because I’m afraid that journalism accountability will require yet more skewering down the line.

1499499_714671640617_1379616982_nAndrea Frantz, Ph.D. is associate professor of digital media at Buena Vista University, Iowa. She was installed as SCJ President at the 2014 Biennial. She’s an advocate of student journalists and the First Amendment. She’ll be blogging periodically about SCJ and other news.

President’s Post: Why Journalism, Why Now?

By Andrea Frantz, Ph.D., SCJ President

When I was 18 years old, the dead last thing I wanted to be was a journalist.

Well, OK. Maybe it wasn’t the last thing. I knew I couldn’t be an entomologist because I have a severe cockroach phobia. And I’m not a great swimmer, so lifeguarding was out. But journalism certainly ranked in the lower tier for me in terms of career aspirations.

Why so much resistance? In order to explain, I need to offer a little history.

Grinnell Herald Register 3

The Grinnell Herald Register, where Frantz learned the journalism business from her dad. Photo credit/Andrea Frantz

First, I grew up in a small, family-owned newspaper, where my father served as editor. My hometown of Grinnell, Iowa, boasted about 8,000 people at that time, so our semi-weekly publication reflected precisely what community journalism was all about: an intimate space to tell the stories relevant to the people who lived there.

Grinnell Herald Register 2

Frantz’s first job–at age 9–was delivering tear sheets. Photo credit/Andrea Frantz

My first job, at the ripe old age of 9, was delivering tearsheets for the paper. Tearsheets? That was the old handshake-and-a-smile way we used to assure advertisers that their ads were placed precisely where we said they’d be. I carefully cut out the page, circled the ad in red oil crayon, repeated the process for the appropriate number of copies depending on the size of the ad, and then I walked across town and hand delivered it to the business. Pretty sure that practice is long dead in most places.

By the time I was 16, I was writing, and mostly I produced copy for the part of the paper we lovingly called, the “whose wed, dead, and bred” section. I wrote birth announcements, engagements, weddings, obituaries, and did layout when needed.

Again, so why the resistance to journalism, when my childhood and teen years were largely spent with ink-stained hands and being recognized as ‘that Breemer girl from the paper?’ Well, for an 18-year old headed off to college there were several reasons I wanted to avoid The Fourth Estate:

1. Journalism is about intimacy—When you’re young, it’s not always desirable to know the goings-on of neighbors or vice versa. Most of the time, at 18, I just wanted my space. But space is a luxury you don’t have at a community newspaper.

2. Journalism sparks community debate—Whenever the paper ran a story about a controversial happening within the community (a censorship effort at the local high school comes to mind as one of many examples), we heard about it. Phone calls, letters to the editor, even conversations while standing in the grocery store checkout line all happened as a direct result of information we provided. And of course at 18, I spent much of my energy wanting to avoid controversy and attention.

3. Journalism was hard work—I saw my dad go out all hours of the night to shoot photos of car accidents on the highway, or stay late at a city council meeting in which community members showed up with things to say, or rise before the sun so that he could get some early editing or writing done before layout in the afternoon. As a teen, that much work just didn’t look like fun.

But that, of course, was where I was wrong.

My observations about journalism were quite correct: it is intimate; it does spark community debate; and yes, it is definitely hard work. But what I didn’t understand about journalism at age 18 was what Tom Hanks’s character Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own was trying to articulate about baseball: “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.”

What I didn’t understand at 18 is that for a healthy community, a functioning democracy, journalism is vital.

As I write this blog post several countries worldwide are responding to the largest Ebola outbreak in history, schools are closed in northeast Pennsylvania where the manhunt for an accused cop killer is heating up, and the San Francisco Giants are to meet the Kansas City Royals for the sixth game of the World Series. Oh, there are hundreds of thousands of other stories out there, but my point is that without the journalists who research and share these narratives, where would we be?

Somewhere along the line, thanks to great teachers both in the classroom and out, my 18-year-old awareness of what was important gave way to where I am now some 30+ years later. My career eventually morphed to allow me the distinct honor of encouraging and mentoring young people to critically consume and create for this wildly divergent landscape of 21st century journalism.

It’s intimate, controversial, hard and vital work, and I wouldn’t be caught dead doing anything else.

1499499_714671640617_1379616982_nAndrea Frantz, Ph.D. is associate professor of digital media at Buena Vista University, Iowa. She was installed as SCJ President at the 2014 Biennial at Bethany College, West Virginia, earlier this month. She’ll be blogging periodically about SCJ National news.